One Book, Four Covers: Jan Morris’s Last Letters From Hav

This is the book that made me start this series.

I find it interesting when a book has had a few covers and each edition or subsequent publisher has put their own stamp on it. What’s also interesting is how certain iconic images become tied to certain books. Like Moby Dick — you pretty much have either a whaling boat or a whale on the cover. Dracula covers are predominantly black and red. Conan covers feature sweaty manflesh, etc. Other books may lack iconic imagery, but get sold on their iconic style. If you’ve ever seen Black Lizard’s Jim Thompson reprints then you know what I’m talking about. They’re dark books, film noir dark. Random House’s Philip K. Dick reprints from the 80s and 90s would be another example. They’re garish and weird with computer generated graphics for the garish and weird computer enthusiastic guy. (British PKD reprints went in a totally other direction — more classically SF.)

And then there are books without iconic content or where the iconic content has yet to bubble to the surface and you get character pin-ups, scene illustrations, bland photographs, or weird abstract expressionism like you did with SF/F from a certain era.

All of which brings me back to Hav. (I know I’ve used Hav and Last Letters From Hav almost interchangeably.) Hav is Jan Morris’s fictional travelogue to a country somewhere between Greece and Turkey. Morris made her name as a travel writer (best vacations a book can buy) and Hav largely reads as a straight travelogue until you remember she’s making the whole place up and using the country as … something … a metaphor or vehicle to write a memoir or critique of history or travel writing. It’s not really any one thing.

So how exactly do you convey that? The maze with the train in it is pretty cool. As is that fantasy cityscape with the Chinese tower right in the foreground. That may look too fantastic but I love that cover. The later printings like the NYRB one (and others I haven’t included because they’re too similar) also feature the Chinese Tower but show it on fire. If you have no clue what the book is about and see that cover, you might develop expectations regarding the book, ones it is not at all likely to fulfill. Sort of the same way if a friend recommended A Scanner Darkly to you by saying “it’s about an undercover cop in the future who’s trying to take down a drug ring”, you’d likely be disappointed. Maybe the cover with the De Chirico-esque city scape and typewriter does the best in capturing the book’s mood.

What’s most weird about these burning tower covers is that they attempts to make an icon from one event out of many potential ones. Is the maze race any less iconic, or the maze itself, or the sense of travel, or Mamoun’s trumpet, or the troglodytes and their snowberries? To picture that one event, the burning of the tower, to the exclusion of all others — well, I don’t know. Is that what the book is about? It’s not really what I think about when I think about the book.

But what exactly are covers for then? To attract buyers? To signify that the book is X instead of Y? To signify that we are X-type person instead of Y-type? To keep the inner pages from falling out? And then when books get multiple covers over decades how are they packaged for new readers?

Looking at an old cover for Hav after seeing the new NYRB one made me wonder all these things, and that’s how One Book, Four covers got started.

And now you know, etc.

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  1. Hav of the Myrmidons | The Mossy Skull - February 10, 2015

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